I love what I do! I get to impact the lives of students across our country, giving them hope and empowering them. Do you know that sensation when a moment arrives when you feel you’ve been given an all-access pass into the life of a young adult? The moment when a student looks at you, really looks at you, and wants to hear what you have to say and is ready to respond, it is priceless and it is a blessing. Maybe you could say that this is a season of my life where I have some sort of “cool factor” (Lol) allowing me to operate within this all-access role.
My Time with Over 2,000 Students in Minnesota
Recently, a fantastic non-profit organization in Minnesota brought me to The Gopher State to speak to Discovery Middle School and Alexandria Area High School. My days of playing football put me in front of some large audiences, but speaking to a group of students this large was a great opportunity to reach a lot of ears – an opportunity that I don’t take for granted. I have been hyped for this trip for weeks.
As excited as I might have been about speaking at a middle school of 1,000 students and a high school of over 1,250, we all have fear that will creep in. Moments when little voices inside try to psych you out and tell you all sorts of garbage. Even as adults we may be ‘over’ some of the fears we had as students – asking someone out, running for student council, trying out for a sports team, standing on stage for a solo – but that doesn’t mean that fear goes away. It just looks different.
I don’t get nervous sharing my story anymore. Yeah, the audience is large, yeah, there’s a lot that could go ‘wrong’ but when you stand where I stand, you receive life from the energy each student brings to the moment. In Alexandria, I experienced that life during all three talks I gave.
The Basic Message I’ve Discovered Teens Need and Want to Hear
I have a basic message I usually share, about choices and consequences, and talent will take you where character won’t keep you. That’s the message I brought with me to Minnesota. Young adults resonate with the word “talent” – they understand what talent is. When I talk about the power of talent, it gives me a runway to start talking about character, and by the time I get to character, the students are typically hooked.
During this talk, I also stressed being aware of the friends you hang out with because you become like the five people you spend the most time with. Inside that room with those students, it was clear that I really needed to emphasize to them that they need to be watching who they’re hanging out with.
Another thing I shared during my time in Alexandria is a message I have been delivering each speaking opportunity: What can make or break the path that each student will go down. Parents, teachers, and leaders are really interested in this part. It’s incredibly tangible and gives adults real tools for connecting with their youth.
I say that there are five things that have the ability to keep you on a path or take you down a different path.
- Self-identity, knowing who you are
- Owning your choices, your responsibilities, putting your past behind you
- Your friends, watching the company you keep
- Find people that know more than you, that can help you and pour into you
- Share your experience with others so you can help them grow
If you were to ask me, I believe these are the five things that changed my life – them along with my encounter with faith brought major change. Look over the list and then turn and look at the lives of people who you know who have succeeded, you’ll see these game changers have a place in their lives. I’m so grateful they transformed mine.
Because Students Look at Me Like “Whatever Dude!”
When I’m standing in front of students, I know they’re probably thinking, “okay, whatever, dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I would have thought the same thing back when I was their ages, haha.
That’s when I tell them that I am not in front of them because I read a story in a book, I’m not up here because somebody told me some story and now I’m telling them, I’m up here because I experienced it.
“I was in your shoes at one point in time, I tested the waters and I was drowning. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made, learn from my experience.”
One of the best ways to connect with students and let them know that you’re for real is to let them ask questions – real questions. After each talk, when possible, I open up the floor for them to ask real questions. That’s what I did for Discovery and Alexandria Area.
Students wind up always asking great questions and I’ve usually heard them all. This event put a brand new question in front of me that no student has ever asked: “Do you regret anything from your journey and if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?”
There are a lot of adults who think about this question, I suppose. There is shame, embarrassment, and even a sense of missed opportunity attached to our past. Relationships, jobs, school – all sorts of things that we could regret.
I thought about it for a second and then I said that I wouldn’t change a thing.
However, the thing that I regret is the way that I hurt people along my journey. Sometimes on purpose and sometimes without ever knowing. That’s who I may have been and it is 100% part of the story of how I became who I am today.
Another great question from one of the students was, “How do you know if you need to get rid of your friends?”
This is one question parents and adults know that our students do think about and would never admit it. I responded to the student that, “You know when the things you’re doing with your friends are hurting you. When that happens, when you’re being hurt, you need new friends. When times are tough you find out who your real friends are.”
The question and answer sessions are very eye-opening.
Selfies, Talking and What Happens After the Lights Turn Off
Once the lights turned off, I got to connect with the students afterward and talk with them. Of course, we always gotta do the selfies, you know! I love it – this is real human connection in their world. If you don’t understand the selfie phenomenon, don’t try to – just start doing it with your students because it’s how you can connect with them.
But what happens after I leave? What happens once I’m gone?
I consider myself fortunate to be connected with the founder of REACH, a program that gives kids a safe place to go that allows students to open up about their fears, their failures, their anxieties. Organizations like REACH exist all over the country and while my story starts the conversation and provides students with permission to bring up complicated situations and start dealing with them, organizations like REACH do the long-term heart work.
After the assemblies, I actually went and spent time with the freshman REACH team. They talked about my message, what they took away from it and members asked some good follow up questions. I don’t usually get an opportunity like this and I really enjoyed it.
The real magic usually happens when I leave a school. The students will message me through Snapchat or Instagram and say things like, “Hey, your message really got me to rethink my life and my choices that I’ve been making. Thank you for coming to our school,” “I did not want to come today but I’m glad I did because you’re different than speakers we’ve had,” and “You’re a great role model, I’m going to follow you from here on out.” It’s so amazing and humbling to me, it happens often after I speak to a group of students. Some amazing things have been done for me and through me. Sometimes it’s crazy to think that this is my life… but it is, and I accept it.
What I would say to adults and parents, the biggest thing your kids are looking for is hope. They want to invest themselves in something that matters, that’s bigger than them, something to hang on to. They all want to be validated. They all want to know their worth, they all want to have value in some way. Many of them don’t believe they have any value, so they try to find their worth in a lot of other things that won’t ever bring them validation. The problem is that a lot of us don’t actually know our own value and worth, so we can’t give what we don’t have.
You are valuable. You have worth. You have something to contribute to the students in your life – you are the one that has to tell the student that they have value and worth.
I believe I’m called to do that and so far the evidence shows that my story is able to give them hope and prove to them their own worth.
Now, reflecting back on my time at Discovery Middle School and Alexandria Area High School, I feel that many kids have been reached, I feel a lot of students walked away with an empowerment to want to do the right thing. I really love what I do!